Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Viscount John Thurso MP (LR 16)

  I attach a copy of a paper which I wrote in 1999 to the Spokesman for the working group within the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. Although my views in some areas have moved on, the paper broadly details my thoughts.

  One point not contained in the paper but which I do feel is important is that there should be a minimum age limit for entry into the House or Lords which should be something in the order of 45 or 50 years of age. To preserve the character of the House of Lords and the quality of debate in the chamber, it is important that it is not available at the beginning of a professional political career to reflect maturity amongst its members.

December 2001



  As a hereditary radical I have long been committed to the reform of the Constitution and in particular to both Houses of Parliament and Westminster. Since taking my seat I have had an opportunity to experience the House at work and therefore to observe the practical realities rather more than the theoretical consideration I had given to the subject previously. The thoughts contained in this Memorandum were largely formulated during my first two years in the House. Last year I began writing them down largely to clarify my own thinking. Following publication of the Government's White Paper, I have re-written this Memorandum to take it into account and for submission to our Party Group. Although not strictly speaking part of the terms of reference I have therefore left in comments on the first stage of reform.


  Before coming to the House I was opposed to the concept of two stage reform principally because I believed that following the first stage of reform, the impetus for change would be lost and consequently that there was a strong possibility that the second stage would not occur. I have now come to the view that two stage reform is preferable for three main reasons; firstly because the complexity of going for full reform in one Bill is too great and the result would probably therefore be no reform; secondly because the political climate has changed sufficiently that the first stage of reform will actually increase the momentum and likelihood of full reform; and thirdly because even if only one stage is achieved, the House will be more legitimate and partial reform is preferable to no reform. There remains however the possibility that the second stage of reform may not be enacted as quickly as is currently envisaged. Thought should therefore be given to issues which should be included in the first stage.

  First stage reform should include a clause which would permit parliamentary Peers to resign their seat. This has two advantages. First it addresses the age question without imposing a mandatory retirement age. There are many Life Peers who have put in long and loyal service and who find the burdens of regular attendance onerous. Such a clause would permit Peers who felt they had done their duty to resign with honour thereby allowing younger Peers to take their place. At the same time, being voluntary, it would put those senior Peers who feel that age is no bar and wish to continue contributing to carry on. Secondly, it would permit younger Peers to resign in the event that they wished to follow a different political path and seek election to the Commons or another parliament. It is noticeable that there have been a number of appointments to the Labour benches in particular of young and able people, without great previous political experience, who may therefore be encouraged to participate more fully in elective politics. A right of resignation would therefore enable them to seek such election.


  The purpose of reform is improvement. Therefore, before considering either the functions or the composition of a reformed House, it is helpful to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the existing House.


    —  Legitimacy. Even when the House is right the current composition ensures that it is portrayed in the Media as being anachronistic and unrepresentative. The House therefore lacks authority for its decisions.

    —  Party Bias. The House can effectively be controlled by one Party at any time.

    —  Unrepresentative. This is normally a charge laid at the doors of the Hereditaries. Although this is true it can also be made against Life Peers. Certain sections of society are heavily over represented amongst Life Peers whilst others are unrepresented. The legal profession in particular, not simply through the judiciary but also through the number of solicitors and barristers, is heavily represented. Retired members of the Commons also form another large block. Academia and the Arts also receive very full representation whilst many sectors of industry are unrepresented.

    —  Age. Life tenure, particularly amongst the Life Peers, means that the average age of the House is high.


    —  Quality of Debate. The quality and maturity of debate in the House is evident. It comes from a number of strengths identified below.

    —  Independence. The ability of members to sit for their life gives an independence from Party Whip which is an important factor in the consideration given to both legislation and debates.

    —  No constituencies. Having no burden of constituency workload members are able to devote their time to their interests.

    —  Regional Balance. Members of the House appear to be more widely spread across the country than the Commons which, taken with the absence of constituency duties, gives them a more regional rather than local view.

    —  Experience. The vast majority of members come to the House, whether Life Peers or Hereditaries, having had a full life in another sphere. By contrast the majority of members of the Commons seek election at a relatively early age and are very often career politicians without experience of other areas.

    —  The Cross Benches. The genuine independence of the Life members of the Cross Benches is an extremely valuable part of the composition of the House.

    —  The Committee Process. The House has evolved a particularly effective Committee process for examining topics across the board rather than through the strictly departmental lines taken in the Commons.


  Until the 1911 Parliament Act both Houses were equal. In theory both Houses remain equal but with certain restrictions on the House of Lords. In practice the Commons is the dominant Chamber and the Lords as much by convention as by statute, defers to the Commons. This situation has arisen however due to the illegitimacy of the Lords. Any process which legitimises the Lords therefore calls into question the relationship between the Lords and the Commons. Whilst it is appropriate that a general election to the Commons should determine the Government, it is also appropriate that a legitimised House of Lords, particularly if it is largely elected, should have the authority and will to exercise its powers to the full. The principal defect of the Commons is that under the "first past the post" system one party can obtain a substantial majority without the approval of the majority of voters. At present the Commons does not take the Lords seriously and uses it inbuilt majority to reject many sensible amendments to Bills. Whilst the Government should continue to have the right to ensure that the Manifesto Bills become law, it should lose the right to reject amendments with such ease.

  Successful devolution would inevitably lead to a reduction in representation at Westminster from devolved countries. This is clearly correct. However the result, with more demographically equal constituencies in the Commons, will concentrate representation in the most highly populated areas, mainly the Home Counties. Many Second Chambers take account of the differing needs of geography and population by basing one Chamber on population and the other on geography. The most notable example is probably the Senate in the United States, with the Commons representing the population, the Lords should represent the geographic spread and diversity of the country.

  The ability of the House to hold debates on the floor and to produce reports from Select Committees has given it a particular ability to raise and enquire into a wide variety of subjects which the Commons has neither the appetite nor the ability to do. The investigative role of the House of Lords should therefore be at least maintained if not strengthened.

  A major part of the work of the current House of Lords is its judicial role as the Supreme Court. There is considerable merit in the argument in favour of a separate Supreme Court and for complete separation of the judicial process from the legislative process. However, the complexities of reform of the judicial process and the creation of a Supreme Court are such that it should not be attempted as part of a second stage of reform of the House of Lords. It is of such crucial constitutional importance that it should be considered and debated as a separate subject and, if thought desirable, enacted as a third stage of reform.

  There are a number of other functions which the House of Lords could usefully undertake which do not currently form part of its role. These might include a formal process of consideration of external treaties, formal links with the European Parliament, or formal consideration of constitutional mattes particularly with regard to the devolved parliaments.


  The Government White Paper suggests that the current theoretical powers of the House should be reduced on the basis that a more legitimate House will exercise its powers more readily. In particular it suggests removal of the power of the House to reject secondary legislation. One of the principal defects of the current relationship between the Houses is the inability by convention of the Lords to deal with secondary legislation. Effectively there is no check on the dictate of the Minister given the likelihood of an absolute majority in the Commons. Ministers should not be protected in this way. One of the most important elements of a reformed House should be to retain the ability to reject secondary legislation and to exercise that power.


  The key strengths of the current House which it would be desirable to retain in a reformed House are:

    (1)  the independence of members from Party Whip;

    (2)  a genuine Cross Bench representation;

    (3)  a regional role rather than local or constituency basis;

    (4)  the quality of debate;

    (5)  the wisdom and experience of life of its members; and

    (6)  the ability of all members to engage in debate, ask questions or take part in the business of the House without the interference of a Speaker.

  The qualities absent from the current House which need to be injected are:

    (1)  legitimacy and the consequent authority that devolves from it;

    (2)  clearly different role to that of the Commons; and

    (3)  a clear definition of its function.


  Three-quarters of the House should be elected with one quarter appointed.

Appointed Peers

  It is not practically possible to provide for the Cross Benches by any form of a direct election, although it might be possible to consider giving certain electoral colleges an ability to nominate Peers for appointment to represent those particular interests. However, on balance, given the requirement for Cross Benchers to be truly independent, and knowing that many such people would never seek election, it is on balance preferable that the Cross Benchers be by appointment. The Cross Bench number would as now contain Law Lords.

Elected Peers

  Elected Peers would almost certainly take a Party Whip. Peers would be elected by PR on a list system representing large regional constituencies. There might be 11 constituencies from the United Kingdom, seven for England, three for Scotland and one for Wales.

Term of Office

  All Peers whether elected or appointed would sit for 12 years and would not be eligible for re-election or reappointment. Appointed Peers would be appointed during the Summer Recess prior to the following Queen's Speech and would take their seat from the Queen's Speech. At the end of their term they would cease to sit immediately prior to the Queen's Speech.

  Elected Peers would be elected on the basis of one third of the House retiring every four years. Election would take place in the summer and Peers would take their seat at the Queen's Speech following. On completion of 12 years service, Peers would cease to sit immediately prior to the Queen's Speech following the election of their replacement.

Suggested Numbers

  On the basis of 11 constituencies, each constituency might have nine members so that 99 new Peers would be elected every four years. On the basis of three-quarters elected and one quarter appointed, the Cross Benches would also number 99, giving a total composition of the House of 397.

  In view of the requirement to have certain members of the Government present in the House of Lords, most notably the Lord Chancellor, a further few places might be reserved for a political appointment by the Prime Minister to sit in the House for the same duration as a commons parliament. Such by Appointees would enter the House by appointment by the Prime Minister immediately following a general election to the Commons and would leave the House either when the Government failed to be re-elected or asked to resign their office by the Prime Minister.

Comments on the above Model

  The objective in having a fixed term of 12 years is primarily to preserve the independence of members from the Party Whip. The term is long enough for them to make a valuable contribution but not so long as to be life tenure. It has the subsidiary benefit of making it unlikely as a starting point for a career in politics leading to Government and more likely to continue to attract members who have experienced life in another sphere prior to coming to the House.

  The appointment of Cross Benchers and the use of PR means that it would be unlikely that any Party would be able to dominate the House. The more consensual nature of the Lords as opposed to the Commons would therefore be maintained.

  It is of paramount importance that the elected section of the Second Chamber be by direct election by the people. Numerous suggestions for electoral colleges have been made with particular reference to the German system where the Landers elect members to the Bundesrat. Given the United Kingdom is not a truly federal system, such representation by the devolved parliaments would be bound to detract from the quality of the House of Lords and to impair the relationship between the devolved parliaments and Westminster. Other electoral colleges are superficially attractive but ultimately there is no substitute for democracy and for placing ones trust in an electoral system which truly represents the wishes of the electorate. Of all parties the Liberal Democrats must not fight shy of trusting the people.

Three Year Rolling Election of One Third

  The elected section means that at any one time, only one quarter of the House will be newly elected. This will undoubtedly help to preserve the continuity and smooth running of the House.


  It is said that if 10 people are placed in a room, they will produce 14 solutions for reform of the House of Lords. The above may be the fifteenth. Although much work would require to be done on the detail, I believe that the broad principles outlined above would lead to a Second Chamber composed of the right people, properly elected to fulfil a genuinely complementary role to the House of Commons.

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